By ARJA SALAFRANCA
The Swimming Lesson And Other Stories by Kobus Moolman
Kobus Moolman, known for his award-winning poetry, has released his debut volume of short fiction, The Swimming Lesson And Other Stories, a slim but varied collection of ten stories. The volume straddles the powerless found in childhood, as experienced by a disabled narrator, and the darker, more twisted, and sometimes surreal experiences of adulthood.
The first three stories deal with an unnamed narrator, traversing a childhood with a disability, never labelled, but it leaves a hole in the spine and the many operations do little to heal the young boy.
Shelter, the first, serves to introduce us to the boy made timid perhaps, by his disability, which hinders his walking and means that he chooses the “safe option” – choosing routes to the bus stop that won’t take him past the strange, exotic parts of the place he lives in, for a boy who has spent his “entire life in one street in the lower end of the city”. As the story progresses, themed around the bus shelters he uses, and those he avoids, we learn more about his life: soft brown eyes, a father who works at the chocolate factory in town, building roads in his Oupa’s vegetable garden. This is an evocative portrait of childhood, and the growth that follows.
It’s an evocation that continues in The Swimming Lesson – told somewhat episodically through the use of different laps of the pool. It begins with: “Her name was Maggie. She smelled of cigars, not perfume. She had me in her arms. And I floated. Lap #1: I would never have dared call her by her first name. Even though she insisted. I was brought up properly. In a proper Afrikaans home.”
The boy learns to swim with the unconventional Maggie, a neighbour, with her smoking and wearing an old black one-piece costume that smells of mothballs. With his dragging leg and disabilities, the boy floats in the pool. When not swimming, the boy peers over the fence at daring Maggie and her daughter wearing risqué bikinis when Maggie isn’t teaching: “My father said it was shameful for women to walk around like that. They may as well be in their underwear.” Yet the boy is learning more than swimming – he’s learning what life is like in other homes, for other people, away from the conservative, controlling influence of his own parents.
Like Father, Like Son continues the story of the boy – and it is a tour-de-force, easily the stand-out in this collection. Moolman distills a portrait of conventional, overbearing father and the fractured, fearful family life as experienced by the mother and children in this story in precise, crystal and plain language. And yet it shines with meaning and quiet menace.
“We all had to wait,” he begins. “While he waited for his toast to cool down. To get ice cold, in fact. So that he would be able to spread the butter. (One hundred percent butter, mind you. Mooi River Choice Salted. Never margarine.) … And all because my father claimed that eating toast which had become soft following the application of butter when the bread was still hot gave him constipation.”
And so begins the story of a childhood ruled by his authoritarian father, manager of the chocolate factory, who refuses to let his wife work, although that would make things financially easier, who also won’t let his wife wear pants or learn to drive. A man ruled by the routine of rules: gardening on Saturday morning and listening to rugby on the radio in the afternoon. Once more the young boy is disabled, and once more the sense of powerlessness pervades his childhood. It’s a story rich with detail: window shopping on Friday night when the shops are closed, the world forever closed, forbidden, out of reach – including the specials which they can’t afford anyway. The mother wears crimplene, the father drives a Ford Cortina and drinks black, sugary rooibos. In the background there are the servants in apartheid South Africa – in this case, a woman named Sweetness who calls the boy “kleinbaas”. And because she must obey everyone in that household, including the young boy, the story pivots on an impossible demand.
The satirical Angel Heart is worth a mention and a wry chuckle. Jesus comes to visit the male, grown-up narrator, whose face is scored with lines. In a story that reminded me of Shalom Auslander’s satirical stories in Beware Of God, in which God comes to earth and is less than perfect, and quite frankly stressed by his duties. This story follows a similar trajectory. Jesus wants a selfie, Jesus is cool – and yet Jesus knows the answers to a burning question about a woman that the narrator once knew… And so the this clever story spins towards its wry conclusion.
Kiss And The Brigadier is redolent of a time and a place in small town South Africa. A group of young friends are drinking on the patio in the sun. The entire village has gone to a funeral. There’s Willem, Kleinjan, JJ. Picture them holding Marie biscuits in hand, wearing paint-splattered overalls, one without a job, another “scheming” to leave this place by building up his vocabulary. Drinking, shooting the breeze, insulting each other: after all what else is there to do on a slow, hot afternoon? Well, there’s always something else – and a sinister plan, idly spoken aloud, worms its way into fruition. A daring story – told in a run-on, steam of consciousness kind of way that leads to a breathlessness in its telling: a perfectly captured portrait of boys on the cusp on manhood in a small town that offers them very little hope.
Daily Bread is another highlight and virtuoso piece. A chilling tale. The details are quotidian enough, yet richly, vividly described: a salesman passing through a Free State town decides after his breakfast to hang around a little longer, to visit the market that is being held weekly before Christmas in the hot December. He stops to buy bread from a religious woman and her teenager – and is shocked to witness the young girl’s hands. She kneads the dough, her mother tells him, saying how strong she is, and inviting him to shake the girls’ hands, feel the strength in them. The father left them long ago, she spits, revealing much about the way they live, the young girl, cloistered, friendless, educated at home, too fragile for the world – yet with such strong hands!
“The girl’s hands were hot and sweaty. … And for a brief moment he inhaled the smell of her, a mix of fragrances … He smelt stale talcum powder and mothballs and sweat. He smelt light that had been sealed up and left standing in an old house night and day behind thick shutters and heavy damask curtains. He smelt heavy furniture and faded family daguerreotypes in dark frames depicting old patriarchs with long beards and obedient wives in lace collars and bonnets. He smelt enamel basins of blood. And offal cooking all day and night. Forever and ever. Amen.”
You’re fooled by the details, the languor of the hot sun, the girl who refuses to look the salesman in the eye – but this chilling story has a sting in the tail, a sting that will haunt long after that final reading.
This collection has a lovely blue-hued cover, from Louise Hall’s The Swimmer Series VI, showing a nameless swimmer striking out. Echoes to many of the pieces in which the narrators are unnamed – but certainly not faceless after the reading. Here are lives twisted by controlling figures in their childhoods, and sometimes twisted adulthoods, in which they discover dreams don’t always match reality, and take on nightmarish shades.